By Tom Uhlenbrock // Photos by Tom Uhlenbrock
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
CLARKSVILLE, MO. – Bring your checkbook on this road trip, and not because of the price of gasoline.
Artists appreciate beauty, and that may be why so many have set up shop on the stretch of Highway 79 from Clarksville north through Louisiana to Hannibal.
The two-lane highway rolls between corn and soybean fields and over the forested bluffs, with glimpses of the Mississippi River around every other curve. A 28-mile section through Pike County was the first to be honored when Missouri set up its scenic byway program.
When choosing a route for this season’s fall drive, I scouted out Highway 79 to Hannibal, then took U.S. 61 over the river into Illinois, where I came back down on Route 96. Highway 79 and Route 96 are Great River Roads that follow the flood plain between the bluffs carved by the Mississippi.
The reddish tint of poison ivy and sumac hinted of autumn, with the view promising a patchwork of color by October and November. These blue highways soon will be orange, russet and gold. Late fall and winter also bring the bald eagles, which hang out below the locks and dams on the river to fish the churned-up water.
The Clarksville Visitor Center has maps that list 24 art, antique and specialty shops, five restaurants and two bed-and-breakfasts. On the hill overlooking the town is the rejuvenated Sky Lift, which offers a panoramic view of the river valley.Clarksville, Louisiana and Hannibal have used their shared heritage, history and scenic river settings to form a “50 Miles of Art” corridor along Route 79. Galleries and shops filled the historic district of Clarksville, where the Mississippi first came into view on my drive.
At Rothbard Gallery on First Street, Robert Rothbard and his wife, Michelle, sell their creations in art glass and wire sculpture – a three-dimensional wire tiger glowered from the wall. Robert, a transplanted Texan, also is an inventor, his claim to fame is a better outdoor basketball net made from nylon strapping.
“We have the most working artists per capita in America – 6 percent,” he said of Clarksville.
With the town’s roadside sign recording 490 residents, you do the math.
With hand tools, Ralph splits red-oak logs and cuts, bends and shapes the wood into chair parts, piecing them together without nails or screws. Caron carves the details and paints the chair with old-time, milk-based paints. Ralph then uses his 338 pounds to test the delicate-looking finished product for strength.I headed to the Windsor Chair Shop to check out the antique reproductions of Ralph and Caron Quick. The couple makes chairs the way they did in 1775, and recently earned the coveted “museum quality” classification from Early American Life magazine, which added the Quicks to its celebrated list of heritage craftsmen.
“He stands on the seats,” Caron said. “We hope the chairs are here long after we’re gone. We don’t make disposable furniture.”
Ralph Quick is from Fort Bragg, N.C., but has fit right into the Clarksville community, where his ample girth, cheery cheeks and flowing gray beard made him a natural as the town’s designated Santa each year.
“You’re just far enough away from the rat race to make it comfortable,” he said of Clarksville. “And it’s out of the way just enough to make it a nice, scenic ride.”
The Quicks aren’t too quick at their craft, a single chair may take seven to 10 days to make and cost from $400 to $1,200. Although they have some chairs for sale in their home, the waiting list for new orders is now up to March of 2008.
I hurried from their shop with my bankroll intact, but double-backed to Clarksville after driving nearly 10 miles north. Buyer’s lust had won out, and I put a payment down on a beautiful child’s settee bench from the Quick’s showroom.
Wine and Rosé
About five miles north of Clarksville, I detoured into the Village of the Blue Rose, which includes a restaurant and conference center with three bed-and-breakfast rooms, a flea market and the Red Barn Thrift and Gift Shop. The buildings are on 60 acres with a prime view of the Mississippi. The village recently got its liquor license, and the deck is now the perfect place to sip a glass of wine.
“We have people who just stop, have a cup of coffee and read a book,” said Donna Ringling, the village’s executive director. “We love to share the view with people. It’s gorgeous in the fall, all the reds and golds.”
The village is a unique operation; it’s the dream of Rose Gronemeyer, a special ed teacher at Sacred Heart Elementary School in Old Town Florissant. She wanted to create a place for families that had young adults with developmental difficulties. Some of those young adults now work, or live, in the village.
“It’s a grass-roots effort, we get no state or federal funds,” Ringling said. “We started out with garage sales, and in 1991 opened a re-sell it shop in Florissant. By 1997, we had $100,000 in the bank and were able to buy this property.”
The restaurant is open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday, dinner Friday and Saturday. This was Monday, so I headed north to Louisiana and the Eagle’s Nest Winery, Inn and Bistro, where the pastrami on grilled rye sandwich was fabulous. Karen and John Stoeckley bought four buildings at Louisiana’s main intersection five years ago and now offer fine food, a seven-room B-and-B and their own wine.
John Stoeckly runs Reflections of Missouri, a gallery where he sells his pen, ink and water colors of historical subjects. The couple’s son, Clark, also is an artist with a shop in town. Louisiana has other interesting galleries and shops, including ASL Pewter Foundry, where I found Tom Hooper and interrupted his lunch.
“Watch this – you’ll think it’s magic,” said Hooper, who, with his wife, Patricia, opened ASL Pewter in Louisiana’s old Grand Central Hotel, which was built in 1881. They are self-taught pewtersmiths, making and selling everything from Christmas ornaments for $2 to one-of-a-kind soup tureens for $1,500.
“If you came in and wanted a table service for eight – goblets, tankards, service pieces, candlesticks – you can actually hang out and watch us make the whole thing for you,” Tom said. “We had a couple come up before their wedding and help us make their goblet. We do a lot of things for churches – chalices and communion ware.”
Tom led the way to the back room, where he poured molten pewter into an antique mold of a wine glass stem. “I have about 40 spoon molds that are pre-1850,” he said. He took out the still-warm stem, and trimmed and polished it before heading into the next room for the magic act.
While another unformed piece of lead-free pewter spun on a lathe, Tom applied pressure with two wooden rods, and the cup rounded into shape around a wood mold. Solder it to the stem and – voila! – a gleaming wine cup.
The Hoopers have invited other craftsmen to sell their wares in the shop, and Jaine Faries is the newest addition. Faries already is in Early American Life’s prestigious registry of artisans, and her work has appeared on the magazine’s cover. She’s listed twice for pieced cotton quilts and a specialty called “float work,” in which cotton and wool are hand woven into table mats and bed coverlets.
“It’s a historical textile popular between 1750 and 1850,” she said. “The quilts I sell mostly to collectors because they’re hand-pieced and they’re teensy, up to 2,000 pieces. ”
Faries relocated from Virginia after visiting Louisiana last spring. “It has so many beautiful houses per square block, it’s got four actual seasons,” she said of her new home. “It’s absolutely darling.”
A Quaint Little Story
My next stop was in Hannibal to spend the night at a work of art on its own. Garth Woodside Mansion was built in 1871 for John and Helen Garth. The Garths were friends of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who left Hannibal at age 17, but stayed at the mansion whenever he returned.
The mansion has been restored into a B-and-B that was rated tops in the state when I visited a couple of years ago and slept in an elegantly furnished Victorian bedroom. Now, innkeepers John and Julie Rolsen have added three detached cottages and a restaurant where chef Erik Spence is providing a gourmet experience not available before in the Hannibal area.
Julie led the way to the Dowager House, the most lavish of the new cottages, with a vaulted master bedroom with a gas fireplace and a wall of windows looking out on a deck and hot tub. There also was a sitting room loft reached by a circular stairway, a full kitchen and a bathroom that had every possible amenity, including a jetted tub and walk-in shower, both big enough for two or more.
“It also has the only bidet in northeast Missouri,” Julie added.
The first phase has been completed, and includes new displays in an interpretive center and in the Mark Twain Boyhood Home, where chalk-white sculptures of Clemens grace each artifact-filled room. A campaign is underway to raise funds to complete Phase Two, which will renovate Becky Thatcher House, Grant’s Drugstore and the John M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office.After a sumptuous breakfast served in the cottage the next morning, I headed out to inspect Samuel Clemens’ old stomping grounds. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum near the Hannibal riverfront is in the midst of a two-phase development project to get the eight buildings
shipshape for the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2012.
“One of the criticisms of the museum in the past is it told the stories of the fictional characters – a quaint little story about Tom and Becky and Huck having fun,” said Regina Farber, the museum’s new executive director. “Now, we’re trying to tell the creative process, how the experiences Clemens had in Hannibal inspired his novels.”
“Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect,” he wrote. “First, it had me for a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place.”After taking the self-guided tour of the museum, I ventured down to the Mississippi, the inspiration for many of Clemens’ writings, and boarded the Mark Twain Riverboat. The river was glassy, the day was warm and breezy, and the modest skyline reminded me of a Clemens’ quote on the wall of the interpretive center:
Best of Show
Gentlemen, protect your pocketbooks. Several of the female shopkeepers along the drive up Route 79 suggested that I stop at AVA Goldworks in downtown Hannibal, where Randy Hurt, his wife, Debbie, and daughter, Brandy, are doing wondrous work in jewelry.
In the last two years, the family has owned the awards in the Missouri Jewelers and Watchmakers Association competition, taking three first places in 2005 and two this year, including a necklace that won best of show and will go to New York to compete in the National Jewelry Design Contest.
Randy Hurt is one of only two jewelers in Missouri with a “master bench jeweler” certificate awarded by the Jewelers of America. Brandy, who is 20, has been named the top apprentice jeweler in Missouri.
“We have a source for the finest colored gemstones available,” said Randy. “Our designs vary from antique reproductions to cutting-edge modern.”
He opened the cases to display some of their work and came out with a cocktail ring with 2.44 carats of diamonds and a price tag of $11,000. The “best of show” cultured pearl necklace was reversible with an oval opal on one side and pink coral on the other. It can be yours for $25,000.
The Hurts set up shop in Hannibal two years ago after visiting it on vacation. Why Hannibal, and not a more glamorous city befitting their occupation?
“That’s one of the most common questions we’re asked,” replied Randy. “I’m 53, Debbie and I have lived in big cities. I was looking for a place to comfortably spend the rest of my life. We’re impressed with the power of the river, the history of the town, all the artists that are coming to the area.
“Hannibal is that place.”
If You Go
The Windsor Chair Shop: At 307 South Second Street in Clarksville. 1-573-242-3700 and www.thewindsorchairshop.com.
Rothbard Gallery: 113 North First Street in Clarksville. 1-573-242-3769 and www.artglasswire.com.
Village of the Blue Rose: Five miles north of Clarksville on Highway 79, 1-573-242-3539, and www.villagebluerose.org. Rooms ranges from $79 to 99 a night. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, dinner 5-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Eagle’s Nest Winery, Inn and Bistro: At the intersection of Route 79 and Georgia Street in Louisiana. The seven B&B rooms range from $95 a night to $125 for the suite, with breakfast included. 1-573-754-9888, and www.theeaglesnest-louisiana.com.
ASL Pewter Foundry: 123 South Third Street in Louisiana. 1-573-754-3435, and www.aslpewter.com. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Occasionally closed on Monday. Specializes in lead-free pewter products based on historic pieces or original creations.
Garth Woodside Mansion: 11069 New London road in Hannibal, 1-573-221-2789 and www.garthmansion.com. Nightly room rates range from $139 to $395.
Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum: 120 North Main Street in Hannibal. 1-573-221-9010, and www.marktwainmuseum.org.
AVA Goldworks: 211 Center Street in Hannibal. 1-573-221-1928 and www.avagoldworks.com. A family business offering hand-crafted jewelry.
Clarksville: The visitor center is at 302 North Second Street, 1-573-242-3132 and www.clarksvillemo.us.
Louisiana: The Visitor’s & Convention Bureau is at 1-888-642-3800 and www.louisiana-mo.com.
Hannibal: For a listing of artists, visit the Gallery of Missouri fine artists at 201 North Main Street, call 1-573-221-2275, or visit www.hannibalfineart.com. The visitors bureau is 1-573-221-2477 and www.visithannibal.com.
– Tom Uhlenbrock
Article © 2006, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. All rights reserved.
Originally published on STLToday.com